Armenian Jerusalem Adrift

Keghart.com Editorial Board, 11 July 2012

“In the centuries-old consciousness of the Armenian people, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the second most revered and loved Holy See, after Holy Echmiadzin.”

With the above sentence the late Haig Aram Krikorian began his magisterial “Lives and Times of the Armenian Patriarchs of Jerusalem” (2011).

Yet the 1,400-year-old patriarchate and Armenian Jerusalem are drifting, threatened by internal and external perils.

Armenians began settling in Palestine decades before the birth of Christ when Dikran the Great conquered most of the Levant. Before his armies withdrew, the king established a community which formed the nucleus of the two millennia presence of Armenians in Palestine. In 50 AD, after the martyrdom of Apostle Thaddeus in Armenia, one of his disciples named Yeghishe travelled to Jerusalem and was consecrated bishop by St. James the Younger, brother of Christ. Euthymius (377-473), the founding father of Judean monasticism, was an Armenian bishop from Miletius (Malatya). By the fifth century there were numerous Armenian monks and 15 monasteries in the Holy Land. Armenian monks were instrumental in discovering the cross of Christ. The monks also participated in the formation, evolution and standardization of the Armenian liturgy.

Keghart.com Editorial Board, 11 July 2012

“In the centuries-old consciousness of the Armenian people, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the second most revered and loved Holy See, after Holy Echmiadzin.”

With the above sentence the late Haig Aram Krikorian began his magisterial “Lives and Times of the Armenian Patriarchs of Jerusalem” (2011).

Yet the 1,400-year-old patriarchate and Armenian Jerusalem are drifting, threatened by internal and external perils.

Armenians began settling in Palestine decades before the birth of Christ when Dikran the Great conquered most of the Levant. Before his armies withdrew, the king established a community which formed the nucleus of the two millennia presence of Armenians in Palestine. In 50 AD, after the martyrdom of Apostle Thaddeus in Armenia, one of his disciples named Yeghishe travelled to Jerusalem and was consecrated bishop by St. James the Younger, brother of Christ. Euthymius (377-473), the founding father of Judean monasticism, was an Armenian bishop from Miletius (Malatya). By the fifth century there were numerous Armenian monks and 15 monasteries in the Holy Land. Armenian monks were instrumental in discovering the cross of Christ. The monks also participated in the formation, evolution and standardization of the Armenian liturgy.

When Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, he guaranteed the rights, properties and privileges of the incipient Armenian Patriarchate. Similar decrees were signed by Saladin, Sultan Chakmak of Egypt, and the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Mejid in 1852. The latter’s pronouncement, known as the Status Quo, defines, regulates and maintains the rights and privileges of the three main Christian sects (Armenians, Greeks, Roman Catholics). The Status Quo was usually observed by Britain (1917 to 1948), Jordan (1948-1967) and Israel (since 1967).

The patriarchate, including the surrounding Armenian Quarter, covers one-sixth of the Old City of Jerusalem. It also owns Sourp Prgich Church and parts of the Holy Sepulchre (Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection site). Some distance away from the Armenian Quarter, but still in Jerusalem, the patriarchate also owns part of the Holy Mother of God Church where Virgin Mary is buried and all of the adjacent Gethsemane Garden where Christ was arrested. Sections of the Ascension Church on the Mount of Olives, parts of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the St. Nicholas and St. George monasteries in Jaffa and Ramle, in addition to real estate in other parts of the Holy Land make up the rest of the Armenian Church holdings.

The Saints James Monastery of Jerusalem is the largest monastic centre in Israel-Palestine. It contains a high school, theological seminary, printing press, a library, social clubs, national and ecclesiastic treasures. The St. Toros Church, inside the compound, has 4,000 illuminated manuscripts–the second-largest collection after Armenia. The Saints James Cathedral, inside the monastery, is considered to be the most beautiful in the city.

The challenges the community and the patriarchate face are multiple. There are, at most, 1,500 Armenians left in Jerusalem. After Israel annexed Arab Jerusalem in 1967, the city has expanded due to re-mapping (read gerrymandering) and Israeli campaign to Judaize the city mostly through settlements. The Armenians are practically invisible in a sea of 500,000 plus Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. The patriarchate would be in an unsustainable position if the Armenian congregation continues to dwindle.

The Saints James Brotherhood is a patriarchate without a patriarch—a functioning patriarch, that is. For seven months Patriarch Torkom Manoogian has been in a coma. The brotherhood has mysteriously and deploringly failed to elect a coadjutor patriarch to manage the patriarchate. It has announced that it would hold a meeting in January to decide on patriarchal succession, if the patriarch doesn’t recover.

The external perils are more daunting. The patriarchate and the community, like other Christians, find themselves in the vise of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The combatants want Armenians, who own strategic area, to side with them in their century-old conflict. Arabs expect Armenian support because Armenians lived in peace with Arabs when Old Jerusalem was governed by Jordan. Arabs also regard Armenians Middle Eastern people who would be natural allies of fellow Middle Easterners rather than to “foreign” Israelis. Meanwhile, a sector of the Palestinian populace has opted for fundamentalist Islam and become hostile to Christians in general.

Israeli government’s relations with the patriarchate have been friendly. The status quo is observed, although haredi fundamentalists have assaulted Armenians and other Christian minorities, especially priests and seminarians. They have cursed and spat on the crucifix Armenian clergy wear. A few years ago Archbishop Nurhan Manoogian (no relation to the patriarch) was questioned, under warning, by police when he slapped a haredi student after the latter spat at him. “JTA”—a Jewish electronic publication—said that haredi harassments had become endemic. Archbishop Aris Shirvanian was quoted, in 2004, as saying that Christians don’t report the attacks because they believe police would ignore their complaints.

Israel has also confiscated the I.D. cards of many Palestinians and some Armenians, jeopardizing their residency status. The municipality has grabbed patriarchate real estate and earlier this year Armenians were banned from parking their cars on a partially Armenian Patriarchate-owned parking lot and the space was allotted exclusively to Jews.  There are unconfirmed reports that the Israel has asked the patriarchate to cede crucial real estate to shorten the road from Israeli West Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall in Old Jerusalem. There are rumors that the Israelis are pushing the patriarchate and the Armenian residents to reject the return of the Old City to Arab rule or approve the division of the city, if the UN holds a plebiscite.

The plight of the Armenians is compounded by the smallness of their numbers and the fact that the Armenian sector lies at the junction of the access roads from Israeli West Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall. The patriarchate and the congregation wonder what Israel would do if the annexation of Jerusalem becomes legal. Would a sovereign and emboldened Israel confiscate more Armenian lands?

 In weighing the scales of their support, Armenians can’t afford to antagonize Palestinians, since hundreds of thousands of fellow Armenians live in Arab or Muslim countries.

An issue which might also have a crucial impact on the Armenian option is their quality of life. Since the Israeli annexation of the city, Armenians have enjoyed modern public utilities and social benefits such as medical care, unemployment insurance and pension. For a community with a high percentage of elderly people, social benefits are particularly important. The Palestinians have no such programs. Armenians might also prefer the modern, Western lifestyle that Israel provides.

To complicate the Gordian scenario, Armenians have to consider three further issues: Israel’s close ties with Azerbaijan; promises that the Knesset might recognize the Genocide of Armenians; and Israel’s control of clergy “supply”. Since most of the priests come from Armenia, Israel can make the issuance of visas difficult if Armenians don’t behave.

What should the patriarchate and laymen do? Should they sit on the fence or side with Israel or Palestine? How can they determine an immediate policy while preparing for the unknown future?

A basis of the Armenian policy should be to act in unison with the other Churches. If not contradictory with a united Christian stand, Armenians should consider positive neutrality.

Like other Christian denominations in the Holy Land, the Armenian Patriarchate is autocephalous: it is a self-governing entity. Other Armenian Sees, local Armenians and the Diaspora have no say in the running of the patriarchate. Amazingly, fewer than 30 priests control one of the most precious real estates in the world. They report to no one. As a result, corruption and incompetence have been a hallmark of the brotherhood for some years.

It’s time for the Republic of Armenia, the Catholicos of All Armenians, and the Diaspora insinuate themselves into the affairs of the brotherhood. Presidents Levon Der-Bedrossian and Robert Kocharian visited Jerusalem and Israel. President Serge Sarkissian hasn’t. Armenia should send frequent senior delegations to Jerusalem. It should “show” our flag in the Holy Land. Diaspora Armenian organizations should hold conferences in the Armenian Quarter; they should fund restorations/renovations. They should invest in new businesses so that young Armenians do not find marriage an impossible dream. The brotherhood should amend its constitution to allow “outsiders” have a voice in the management of the patriarchate.

The brotherhood should remember that the Armenian Quarter, the churches, the treasures of Saints James, and its real estate are the result of 1,400 years of Armenian donations and support—from kings to humble pilgrims. Armenian Jerusalem belongs to the Armenian Nation. When Diasporans make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they are often requested by local Armenians to make their visits more frequent and to encourage other Diasporans to visit because Armenian Jerusalem finds itself isolated. Diaspora Armenians would be more eager to visit Jerusalem if they believed the brotherhood behaves in the best interest of the Armenian Nation.

The brotherhood can’t have it both ways. It’s either part of the Armenian Nation or it’s an archaic and undemocratic entity—a dismal relic from the Ottoman era. It should abandon its not-so-splendid isolation and put the interests of the Armenian Nation first. It should also remember that it was wealthy Armenians (17th to 19th centuries) who frequently saved the mortgage-mired patriarchate from  bankruptcy, and it was Istanbul amiras who greased the Ottoman wheels to guarantee the patriarchate’s rights and privileges were not usurped by corrupt governors.

Armenians around the world rightfully boast that one-sixth of the Holy City belongs to the Armenians. To make sure the Armenian presence continues undiminished in the Holy Land, Diaspora Armenians and the RoA should come forth to assist the embattled community financially, politically, culturally and morally. We should demonstrate to the Armenians of Jerusalem that they are not alone. Ditto to the Israelis and to the Palestinians.

  

 

 

3 comments
  1. Perils of Armenian Jerusalem

    Perhaps because of space problems you couldn't mention the dangers that the Saints James Patriarchate faces from the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

    The Greeks–while their clergy is largely Greek, their congregation is overwhelmingly Arab–have the most extensive land and holy sites owners in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. The Greek Patriarchate doesn't mind throwing its weight around. Not satisfied with its extensive Holy Land properties, it tries to push other Churches, especially the Armenian, around. On occasion, the Greeks have even claimed that the Saints James Cathedral belongs to them!

    The Roman Catholic Church, backed by the Vatican and European nations, also has designs on the Armenians. Back in 1948, when the Arabs and Jews were fighting, the Pope sent an official letter to the international community, saying that to save Christian sites, all Holy Land Church properties should be handed to the Vatican because the Roman Catholics has been in Holy Land since the 13th century. Apparently, the pope was painfully ignorant of history since Armenian and Greek Churches have been in the country since the 4th century, when most of Europe was pagan, and their was no Roman Catholic Church. The pope kept silent when the Armenian and Greek Patriarchate's issued statements which exposed the pope as an "F" student in Christian Church history.

  2. Armenian Jerusalem

    As a native born Jerusalem Armenian I find it insulting that the Miracle that is Armenian Jerusalem is the subject of a major article and the Almighty and His Will is not mentioned…

    Dear friends, we are proud Armenians and members of the First Christian Nation, and yet we have the audacity to air our worries about Armenian Jerusalem. What are we really worried about? The fact that the thirty members of the Brotherhood are the custodians? Or the fact that somehow when looked at under the microscope we find them wanting… remember that every one of them is the offspring of an Armenian Apostolic family that led them to a very difficult lifestyle, some knew
    what they were getting into and some were too young…

    I wonder who amongst us laymen would come up with flying colours if looked at under the same microscope.

    My dear friends let me assure you that God in His Infinite Wisdom willed Armenian Jerusalem to us Armenians, over the last fourteen hundred years it survived an thrived under all sorts of very adverse conditions under His guiding hand, let us all murmur a heartfelt Thy Will Be Done and leave it all up to Him.

    Come to think about it what other group or organization would you entrust the wellbeing of the Miracle of Armenian Jerusalem?

    1. Jerusalem Future

      Back in the Middle Ages, many clergymen, perhaps also Armenian priests,  sought sanctuary in their churches, expecting God would protect them as Hunnish/Mongol/Tatar/Seljuk/Ottoman hordes razed everything around them. We know what happened to these church men.

      I can't cite a single historic incident where devout Christians were saved by God because of their faith. The best example of this is the Genocide of Armenians, the existence of fascist Turkey and Tatar Azerbaijan.

      "God helps those who help themselves" say the English. Armenians say, "Yeghoonk oonis klookht kerreh" (If you have nails, scratch your itching head).

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